This is three-piece story about the idiosyncrasies of the cheetah–and the myriad struggles zoos face when attempting to mate these majestic felines in captivity.
A pair of cheetah cubs, a brother and sister named Justin and Carmelita, has charmed Smithsonian National Zoo visitors in Washington D.C. since their public debut in July 2012. The eleven-month old cats have shed their baby fuzz for sleek orange fur patterned with black spots. Yet despite their adult stature, the cats still act like rambunctious youngsters, chasing each other around their pen and playfully wrestling.
This is all good for now – but in a year’s time these young cats will be taken off exhibit, just like their parents before them, and started down parallel paths to confront their destiny as genetically robust cheetahs, sired to save their species from extinction.
The world has undergone a massive cheetah drain over the last century largely due to loss of natural habitats and conflicts with humans. Wild cheetah populations have plunged 90 percent, from around 100,000 cheetahs in the early 1900s to roughly 10,000 today. The situation is further complicated by low genetic variability among the species. Saving the cheetahs from extinctions means not only increasing numbers, but also ensuring the new population is genetically healthy.
In recent decades, zoos like the Smithsonian have taken on this challenge. But there’s a hitch: breeding cheetahs in captivity is not easy. And despite decades of advances in understanding cheetah biology and behavior, and cultivating cheetah-appropriate reproduction strategies, current captive birth rates are still failing expectations.
Off a quiet road, hidden in the Virginia wilderness lies the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, the National Zoo’s private breeding and research facility. Built in 2007, the 3,200-acre plot comfortably houses multiple species, including one of the largest cheetah populations in the United States with 17 cats.
On January 20, 2012, Adrienne Crosier, a cheetah research biologist, noticed one of the Smithsonian female cheetahs repeatedly peeing in the same spot in her pen. Ally had never been an easy cat to interpret: Abandoned by her mom as a two-month-old, she was a “nervous” youngster. For this reason, Crosier had kept close watch on Ally for years to see if the shy, petite feline would ever showed signs that she was ready to mate. Cheetah-reared cubs can mate as early as two or three, but the biologist still had doubts about Ally at age four.
One of fewer than fifty experts in cheetah reproduction worldwide, Crosier has worked with wild and captive cheetahs for over a decade. At the Smithsonian’s Virginia campus, she advocates natural cheetah breeding, but also researches assisted reproduction methods such as artificial insemination. Her work contributes to a global effort spearheaded by the nonprofit Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) to save the endangered felines from elimination.
Compared to other big cats, cheetahs are especially prone to disease and physiological abnormalities due to low genetic variability. Subsequently, the AZA has mandated that breeders only mate cheetahs from different lineages to produce cubs with good, diverse genes.
That cold day in January, Crosier had a hunch Ally was in heat, or “estrus, and ready to mate. Along with lead cheetah keeper Lacey Braun, Crosier decided to play matchmaker. Ally was temporarily whisked from her pen. Three male brothers, all equally recommended by the AZA as potential suitors, were then paraded in for a “smell test.”
The siblings curiously toured the pen, nose to the ground. Within minutes, Caprivi, a young, spry four-year old had detected the intoxicating scent of a female in heat and was enamored. Anxious to meet the mysterious feline, Caprivi started cooing excitedly, a cheetah-specific vocalization called stutter barking.
Caprivi’s brothers were not interested – not an uncommon occurrence, as cheetahs can be incredibly picky about mate choice compared to other big cats, including lions, tigers, and leopards. The two apathetic brothers were sent back to their pen, while the courting cats were prepped for a standard first cheetah date: a “fence introduction.” Caprivi was moved to an adjacent holding area, and Ally was returned to her enclosure. A metal fence separated the two pens. Despite living in the same facility for over two years, this was the first time the cats had met.
Would Caprivi like Ally in the flesh – and would she like him back? If either cat hisses, howls, or displays any other type of aggressive behavior, their breeding is called off. The keepers remain nearby, like bouncers, ready to break up a fight.
Upon seeing Ally at last, Caprivi only got more excited. He eagerly ran to the shared fence, crooning in pleasure. Ideally, Ally would also have run to the fence to touch noses or dip her hips suggestively. Instead, she stood still and silent.
Since there was no aggressive behavior, however, Crosier and Braun made the call to bring the cats into the same pen and see what happened. Whether the cheetahs mated was up to Ally: She could either sit on her butt, sending a hard Not Interested message, or take to the eager suitor.
Within ten minutes of sharing a pen the cats had mated. After which, they quickly separated – typical behavior for cheetahs, who even in the wild are more inclined towards one-night stands rather than committed relationships.
The entire courtship, from introduction to mating, took less than a day, but the ramp-up for this pairing was years in the making. It involved thousands of dollars, the coordination of three zoos, and years of closely monitoring the cheetahs.
At this point, Caprivi’s job was done. But for Ally and the zookeepers, two months down the line a turbulent delivery loomed.